Saul Conrad is an unconventional songwriter. While his basic specs as a musician aren't unique (his touring band is just him, a guitar and an additional vocalist), it doesn't take a lot of listening to realize that he's different. You won't hear a lot of rhymes in his lyrics, for one thing, and if you like to cling to hooks and repeated choruses, well, you're out of luck.
"I really try not to repeat things at all," says the Boston folkie, "and have things go somewhere and not recycle the feeling you got when you listened to chorus one: You get to chorus two and you're back there again. I think with songs, they're so short, you're often trying to say so much."
His speech patterns are those of an excitable academic more than a rocker; he speeds up and slows down, hesitates and searches for the right way to explain his craft. It's not surprising, given that he has, at times, given up music altogether in favor of writing.
"I tried to write music" in college, he explains, "but I kept feeling like I couldn't write music with words — I was either going to shortchange the melody and the structure of the song, or I was going to shortchange the lyrics, and I couldn't get them to fit together. And I ended up kind of dropping the whole thing to write short stories, and focus on one thing — I thought I could maybe have all the rhythm and stuff in the words themselves."
But something — or someone — brought the 24-year-old back to music.
"I had never heard of Townes Van Zandt until about a year ago," he says. "And I remember watching a documentary about him, and he talked about coming up with lyrics that implied a melody, or he had a melody that just brought lyrics down out of the sky with it. And I really heard it in his writing; somehow, there was a total union between the words and the melody.
"It's like they were making each other instead of sacrifighting each other," he goes on.
"Sacrifighting" doesn't seem to be a deliberate portmanteau; it's more a slip of the tongue that he glosses over — but at the same time, it's the perfect word for what he's trying to describe. Conrad's verbal miscues are more clever than other people's most thought-out lines.
Last year, Conrad released Poison Packets, a full-length issued jointly by his Mountain of Leopards label and Cavity Search. It's full of catchy tunes with a country bent, and often challenging lyrics. Sometimes it's heady, sometimes it's slightly naughty. He's got a lot of metaphors for sex stuff, but it generally comes off more like someone with a tortured subconscious than someone trying to provoke a reaction. Pittsburghers might draw comparisons — ideologically and sonically — to the Rickety act Anita Fix, from the late '90s and 2000s.
"I really felt like I was trying to look at some of the patterns of my life" on Poison Packets, Conrad explains. "Psychological things, things that have been haunting me my whole life, and really try to find out why and connect the dots to the sources of what caused things to be like this — trying to be honest and open, to the point of exposing my mind, I thought."
In a way, he sounds like an outsider musician — but he's also well trained in a way. Conrad studied piano as a kid, and even in college to an extent. That doesn't help a whole lot, though, when you're trying to prep for a tour as a solo act with a guitar.
"I'm normally very much about writing new music," he says, "and figuring out chords and structures for a song and words and piano and guitar. Going out, I'm going to be the only one playing guitar, and [Katie Schecter is] going to be singing, and I've been playing a whole lot, just to figure out how to express, on an acoustic guitar, everything that's going on on a record with a whole band."
Conspicuously absent on Conrad's first real tour: his parrot Chico, who's been known to accompany him live at hometown shows.
"He's actually amazing!" Conrad says, with the love of a father. "He doesn't really do the words — he can talk, but he doesn't sing the words in the songs, he pretty much always sings his name, or throws in a few phrases. But he can really follow changes! He can totally follow a melody, and change keys, and he has rhythm.
"I wanted to take him on tour, but he's actually 32 years old. They can live a long time, but I was worried that it being winter, and traveling and all that. He's a tropical bird, so, yeah."
The two-person tour sans bird stops at Inn Termission Lounge, on the South Side on Wed., Feb. 20; while Conrad is prepping to release a new LP in April, he'll be playing mostly material from Poison Packets on this tour since it's his first appearance in most of the towns he's visiting. Expect some thoughtful stuff, and some self-reflection — just don't expect a singalong.
"Rather than — ‘This is a really catchy thing, this is a really enjoyable thing' — this thing, in the makeup of the song, represents a certain emotional climax or a certain change or certain place where the protagonist falls or sees things in a new way," Conrad says. "And I want it to be unique to that experience in the narrative, and not something that's used over and over. "